Dear Inky: I Got It Wrong

The right vision is important for Philly newspapers to survive. Doubling down on print isn't it.

This about sums it up.

I get it wrong sometimes.

I was wrong back in January 2013. At the time, new ownership had taken over at the Inquirer and Daily News — is the ever not the case —and immediately demanded millions  of dollars in wage and benefit cuts from the salaries of  journalists employed by the paper.

It seemed another example of a newspaper trying and failing to cut its way to profiitability, a plan that hadn’t worked at any of the other million or so papers that had been trying it recent years. So I offered a potential way out of the never-ending death spiral:

Out in California, the Orange County Register is remaking itself along a new print-centric strategy that is deliberately pushing digital to the side in favor of making … better print newspapers. New publisher Aaron Kushner is reaching into his deep pockets to hire more and better journalists, as well as top-flight designers, to make the “deadwood” version of the Register so compelling that people will pay to read it. The idea is that relentless quality and a refusal to work for free will win the day. Will it pay off? We don’t know yet.

Most interesting to me is who has bought into that strategy: Rob Curley. You might not know his name, but he was my boss a decade ago at the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World, and made his name as one of the country’s foremost digital journalism gurus, skipping to jobs in Florida, Washington D.C., and Vegas. And now he’s in California … helping re-build theRegister’s family of weekly newspapers. The digital guru has gone print-centric, in other words. It’s an astounding transformation for many of us who have known him or seen one of his presentations. But he indicated to me this week he’d tired of “trading digital dimes for print dollars.”

“Now that I understand the revenue model and business strategy for the Register, and that it isn’t like a typical newspaper, I know that I need to make a print product that people want to read,” Curley told me Tuesday.

18 months later, the verdict is in, according to this devastating OC Weekly cover story: Dozens upon dozens of journalists have been laid off or bought out in recent weeks, while the paper’s very financial viability is an open question.

My friend Rob? He’s ascended to the top editor slot at the paper, only to watch it disintegrate from beneath him. He’s no longer talking about trading digital dimes for print dollars. He sounds, in the OC Weekly piece, a bit shell-shocked.

“There’s a moment in every journalist’s life when they realize they want to be a journalist,” he said. “We have to channel that calling right now, even if it’s difficult. You have to lead when it’s hard, not when it’s easy.”

Asked if he trusts his owners, Curley replied, “What others are doing, it isn’t working. I don’t know what’s right or wrong, but you have to take a leap of faith.”

There are many, many reasons things are going badly in Orange County — they put up hard paywalls on the website in order to force readers to buy the paper (cough) — but let’s take these three lessons for use by our Philly papers:

• In 2014, it  may not be possible to make a daily print product that people need to read. The audience for news is moving online, and that’s not an accident or a failure by newspapers to be attractive enough: It simply is.

• Any strategy that relies on changing the audience fundamentals — trying to force them to change their habits, or the direction of their habits, instead of accommodating them where they’re at — is probably doomed. Again: The audience is going online.

• It is not the case, despite my January 2013 comments, that “pursuing an actual vision—any vision—might be worthier, and have a better payoff, than sitting around and dying the death of a thousand rounds of staff cuts.” Aaron Kushner had a vision. It is now self-evidently the wrong one, and it’s possible his paper is dying faster than it would’ve if he’d simply left it alone.

That makes the task of Philly papers much harder: Any plan won’t do.You’ve got to thread the needle. I got it wrong the first time. There’s still time for Philly papers to find the right plan, if it exists. But it’s growing shorter.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.